Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
“Rose, o pure contradiction, desire to be no one’s sleep beneath so many lids”
Rilke’s self-composed epitaph, written before leukemia took his life December 29, 1926. It was the rose, a symbol of love, beauty, and devotion in much of Rilke’s writings, which ironically caused the onset of his illness that took his life so suddenly. Months before, Rilke had been gathering roses from his garden for a visitor, and while doing so, pricked his hand on a thorn. The small wound failed to heal and grew rapidly worse, leading to his tragic death at age 51. In his relatively short life, Rilke had produced a body of poetry and writings unsurpassed in its genius of emotion, insight, and sensuality. “It is my conviction that, by any measure, the two greatest writers of the twentieth-century are James Joyce (1882-1914) and Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)”[Mood 17]. Other scholars and poetry lovers would undoubtedly agree, as Rilke’s life and poetry have, especially in recent here in America, attracted the minds of many, with translations of his works and biographies abounding.
Rainer Maria Rilke was born December 4, 1875 in Prague, the only child of an unhappy marriage which eventually dissolved. Rilke’s childhood was an unhappy one, being placed into military school by his parents who desired that he become an officer. With the help of his Uncle, who realized that Rilke was a highly sensitive and gifted boy unfit for a military career, Rilke left the military academy and entered the German gymnasium (college preparatory school). By the time he left the gymnasium and entered Charles University in Prague in 1895, he had already published his first volume of poetry. There was no doubt in Rilke’s mind, that he would pursue a literary career. In 1896, Rilke decided to leave the university for the bustling and cosmopolitan city of Munich, Germany, where his poetic career and life would begin to unfold. Rilke’s life would thereafter take him to many places, meeting many people, women he would come to love and lose, and giving him experiences that would enrich and influence the unique voice of his poetry.
As Rilke writes, “poems are not…simply emotions…they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and things…and know the gestures which small flowers make when they open in the morning…” -The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. It was his travels to Russia that would prove to be a milestone in Rilke’s life, and which he believed marked the true beginning of his early serious works, as the Stunden Buch/Book of Hours published in 1905. Rilke would continue to travel throughout his lifetime, to Italy, Spain and Egypt, among many other places, but Paris would serve as the geographic center of his life, where he first came as a young man to write a commissioned work on the great sculptor Rodin. It was in Paris that Rilke began to develop a new style of lyrical poetry, influenced by the visual arts, and which Neue Gedichte/New Poems (1907-08), would come to be.
Rilke spent his later life in Switzerland, where he completed the Duino Elesien/Duino Elegies and Sonnette an Orpheus/Sonnets to Orpheus both published in 1923. These later works would reflect the culmination of the development of Rilke’s poetry…gathering all of his dominant themes of love and the idolization of women, life and death, God and religion, into something all encompassing, a unity. The following quote summarizes Rilke’s life and character quite well.. “Rilke proclaimed the poet’s saintly need to accept reality in all its aspects, meanwhile welcoming only those parts of the world for which he could compose and ennobling description. He was venomous about organized religion, yet there are more Virgin Mary’s, Saints and Angels in his work than in many cathedrals. And he hid inside The Poet he eventually became, both secure there and scared, empty and fulfilled; the inspired author of the Duino Elegies, sensitive, insightful, gifted nearly beyond compare; a man with many devoted and distant friends, many extraordinary though frequently fatuous enthusiasms, but still a lonely unloving homeless boy as well, with fears words couldn’t wave away, a self-pity there were rarely buckets enough to contain; yet a persistence in the pursuit of his goals, a courage, that overcame weakness and worry and made them into poems…no…into lyrics that love, however pure or passionate or sacrificial, could never have achieved by itself…lines only frailty, terror, emotional duplicity even, could accomplish–an honesty bitter about weakness from which it took its strength” [Gass 32].
Written by Renate Lester
Gass, William. “Purely a Poet”. The Nation. 4/1/96
Mood, John J.L. Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1975.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Encyclopaedia Britannica: Macropaedia. 1982.